With deep roots in New Orleans and the soul in her voice to prove it – singer, writer and musician Arsène DeLay is our Spotlight Artist of the month for May.
For this month’s edition of our Spotlight Artist series, TheCelebrityCafe.com decided to go on the road. In search of a city with musical gems ready for uncovering, we made our way to New Orleans. Upon arrival, it did not take long for one artist in particular to emerge as a must-know act. She is a classical actress, writer, singer, pianist, guitarist, costume designer and all around powerful spirit. With deep roots in New Orleans and the soul in her voice to prove it, Arsène DeLay is our Spotlight Artist of the month May selection.
The first time we met DeLay, she was sitting at a bar and music venue, d.b.a, on Frenchmen Street. Her uncle, John Boutté – the man behind the theme song to Treme – had just wrapped a show in the next room. Meanwhile, a small group of people gathered around DeLay, chatting casually. This was perhaps the best first image to have of the powerhouse. We were in her city, meeting her family, amidst her community. A few days later, we had the opportunity to sit with DeLay in her family home. At the kitchen table, the winding and engrossing tale of her artistic life unfolded.
DeLay’s long-standing familial jazz tradition certainly shows through her music. However, the singer also incorporates rage and catharsis of rock, along with a passion for the power of words. The result is a very particular Louisiana roots rock style, with an emphasis on the message.
When she is not doing solo work, DeLay co-leads The Bayou Saints with Matt Clark. This southern rock group incorporates a smattering of funk and a hint of jazz to their mix. Additionally, she co-leads the A2D2 experience with Antoine Diel. The duo focuses on jazz, R&B – and really anything they enjoy singing.
On a hot afternoon in New Orleans, we had the opportunity to explore some of the currents that run through the music of Arsène DeLay and make her an impactful performer.
TCC: Usually to kick off an interview we would ask how you got into music. But in your case, it might be worthwhile to take a step back before that and talk about your family a little bit. How long has your family been in New Orleans?
Arsène DeLay: I am 13th generation. So, we have – especially on my mom’s side – we have been able to trace the Bouttés back to being soldiers in Jean Laffite’s army and stuff like that. Yeah, we’ve been in the city a very long time. And have had a lot of say and a lot of roles that have played into its history, on many levels. Definitely, our blood runs deep in the streets of New Orleans for sure.
Which is interesting because I actually didn’t grow up here in New Orleans. My dad was in the military, so we were always stationed in other places. But at the same time, this was still always home to me. This was the place we always came back to. This is the place family was at. This is the place that felt like home. It was home for me. It was like, there are other people here that look like me. I didn’t get these sideways glances here. This was right.
TCC: Speaking of these deeps roots, this is your family’s home, right?
AD: This is the ancestral home. My grandfather actually built this house. Him and his family members – brothers, cousins and all of them. They built the house and my grandmother would cook for them next door, by my namesake’s house. The house next door was owned by a women names Arsène. And that’s who I got my name from. And actually, this was a garden plot that she gave to my grandparents for their wedding gift. So they built the house on it.
TCC: What’s that like? It has to feel like there’s some kind of energy in the walls.
AD: Oh absolutely, the ancestral energy is very very strong. I’ve always loved this house and I feel honored to be the caretaker of it, to keep it in the family. It feels very special … and also, I am lucky to continually have this as the gathering place still.
TCC: Speaking of gathering, we noticed a piano on the way in. Is that yours? Or is that passed down?
AD: That has been passed down. That is a family heirloom. It’s been in the family for over a century. That was my namesake’s piano. It was next door – survived Katrina. I’m pretty sure every member of my family has played on that.
TCC: Has music always been the heart of your family?
AD: As long as I can remember, it has. It was strange because I didn’t actually go to school for music. I went to school for acting and for costume design. But, for me, music was always there. It was never something I had to fight for or go seeking out. It was always there and always around. My mother always sang, my dad played bass. You know, the family always sang. There were always musicians around.
When we lived in Europe, my Aunt Lillian, she was touring Europe. She was always there – that’s where the majority of her work was at – so I saw her on a regular basis. They would always come through town. And I look back now, and it’s like at the time we had these jazz greats who were hanging out with us, who were rehearsing in our living rooms on their way through town. Or me being able to sit backstage or sitting on the side – and be a kid around them.
I remember, Ed Frank, he’s a keys player that was with my Aunt for a long time. And he only played with one hand. But I remember listening to him, and being like ‘Man, that sound so good.’ And then I would go and watch him, because I started playing piano when I was three. And I remember watching him like ‘Man! He’s only doing that with one hand? Wow!’ and just being in awe. And having him look at me and smile and I was like ‘But you’re only playing with one hand.’ And he’s like ‘I know’ [laughing]. Those moments, those are the ones I’m really really grateful for…. I think at the time I didn’t realize how lucky I was to be exposed to that. Because for me it happened at such a young age. It was just like, oh that’s normal, that’s how it’s supposed to be.
TCC: So then we heard you spent some time in Milwaukee.
AD: I did. I went to Marquette for my undergrad degree and then I worked in the film and theater scene there. I worked on the theater scene there and I was in a soul trio and singing backing vocals for another hip hop/poetry group. That was my first step into the full music realm, because I was kind of burned out on theater from school.
TCC: Then you moved to L.A.?
AD: Yeah, I auditioned for grad school in acting and I got accepted at Cal Arts. And I was so tired of being cold [laughing]. That was really the big thing. Because I got accepted to a lot of spots. But I was like, "L.A., yes! I can be broke and warm! I’m okay with this!" So I got accepted to Cal Arts and worked on my master’s degree in acting for three years. That was awesome, it was great. It was really great for me to go and do that because it really taught me about the business of show. It got me to a point where I was versatile enough that I could – I learned how to make a living doing all of the things that I can do. So it wasn’t just about being in a play. But, doing voiceovers, doing jingles. All the worlds of all of that. And how to continue to keep yourself busy and learn how to make work for yourself instead of constantly looking for work.
TCC: So then what prompted coming back to New Orleans?
AD: I was coming home quite a lot because I was working on a couple projects. And, music is consumed differently here than it is in Los Angeles. You can actually be a working musician. You can be a full time musician and live. You can have children, you can get married, you can have a house. You can live. You can have a life and do music all the time here. That is a very difficult thing to do in L.A.
And on top of that, I was in a band in Los Angeles. I was in a band for four years out there and I felt like I was in a holding pattern to a certain extent. I thoroughly enjoyed what I was doing and I loved, I loved the people that I was performing with. But, I was really not trying to continually be just a backing vocalist 24/7. I had songs, I was writing. I had songs to sing and things to say and I thought they were important. And the environment here in New Orleans was much more conducive to that than Los Angeles.
L.A. is so heavily production and result based. When you are trying to get yourself out there and put yourself out there, there is so much politicking that has to be done. And ‘Oh, well you should write this, because you want your song to be placed [in film or TV].’ So you write a song for that. And the thing is when you write songs for that kind of placement – when that’s what your intention is and you go into it like that – songs that you hear on shows, they are nice, they’re good, they’re lovely. But it can’t be too lovely, because it can’t be too distracting from the moment. So there’s all of these restrictions. And even though restrictions can be great to place on yourself in the creative process, to get you to kind of think about things and think out of the box – its kind of an exhausting place to write from all the time …
I felt like it was time for people to know about me as a person and who I am. I felt like what I have to say can help people. It can help them in a myriad of ways. Whether they be in a bad place or a good place. Luckily, the feedback that I’ve gotten from my stuff has been positive in the sense that it sticks with people. And if it sticks with them, then it’s doing something to remind them of their humanity. And if that’s the case, then I’ve done my job. Because that’s really why I do this.
TCC: I want to talk a little bit about Katrina and what the role of music was in that recovery – and as things come and go and there is turmoil – can you talk about the role that music plays in keeping New Orleans New Orleans and keeps people here?
AD: I was in L.A. when Katrina happened. The most terrifying thing for me was genuinely feeling uprooted. I felt like I was going to lose my way of life. I thought New Orleans as it existed was gone. And to a certain extent that’s true. It’s never going to be the same. When you have that kind of catastrophic loss, things will never be the same. And you can’t erase the horror of that. No matter how much you want to pave over the street or paint over the water lines, they are still here, they still exist. And those ghosts will still be here …
Right now, there’s a lot of talk of gentrification and the "New New Orleans" because of people coming in and commodifying the culture. Commodifying it, appropriating it and all of those things. And I take comfort in knowing that trends come and go. And when those people tire… when all those people go, there’s still going to be us here. We’re still going to be here. When the folks that gentrify it and buy the houses and property values go up – when they want to leave, there are some of us who are still actually going to be here. Those of us who will be here until the waters take the city away …
The music is what is going to save us all. After Katrina, I remember coming home and my Aunt Lillian and I actually, we drove down Bourbon Street of all things. The fact that we could actually drive down there was already daunting. Man, it was kind of a ghost town. But, like I said, people were still here. I remember sitting in d.b.a one night, John [Boutté] was performing. And that was like church. People came in. They come to hear the music when they are hurting, because it can give them a moment of relief. For so many people who are going through things, they are the ones that show up at the shows … in those songs, people will find the strength to do whatever it is they have to do. If it gives them a moment away from their grief. If they can stop crying because of something they hear. Or if that melody gives them some peace, some solace, it’s well worth it …
You want to talk about storms now. After the election, especially in this city, there was a collective feeling of dread and terror. Everyone had PTSD. Everybody was in complete shock and awe. Everyone was devastated, myself included. And I felt that. People were coming to our shows in search of something. And there were certain songs like, I started doing “Keep Your Eyes On The Prize” on the regular. And that’s a civil right fight song. And when I would do it, people’s backs straightened and they got – I think it helped them move through the grief part of it, into the rage part of it. That’s the thing about grief and depression. You know, the grief part of it can be so defeating, when you just feel completely lost. But when you’re able to move out of that and get into the rage … the great thing about anger is that it can be so active. When you get angry about it, you’re like "I’m angry and I’m going to do something about this now."
So in essence, music is medicinal. It can pull you back from that cliff of despair and make you turn around and say "No, I have to go back and address this. I have to get up here and continue to move forward and fight to live."
TCC: What would you like people to know about you as an artist and a person?
AD: I just want people to slow down. Like, slow down and listen to the music and be appreciative. And
don’t take it for granted. Don’t take it for granted. Don’t take us for granted. And if you want to do something to save this – show up. Show up. Buy the CD, go see the live show, go tip the band. This is why we do this. We can’t do it without you guys. But really just, I would like to encourage people to really engage. Because when you don’t genuinely engage, you’re cheating yourself. You know? I want to say put the phone down. But for some people, if that’s how they want to focus on it, that’s great. I’m not going to knock that. But, engage and stop collecting evidence.
TCC: Feels like that’s a good note to drop the mic on.
AD: [laughing] Mic drop!
Keep an eye out for upcoming new music from Arsène DeLay. In the meantime, check out her residencies: Solo shows at Buffa’s on Monday nights; Full band performances with The Bayou Saints on Tuesday nights at Bar 30°/90° and A2D2 at The Spotted Cat on the first Saturday of every month. Keep up with Arsène’s other performances on her website.